(Editor’s note: I Miss the Old New York is a short story by Sam Magid.)
NEW YORK — Every generation of dreamers who has ever moved to New York will eventually utter the following sentiment: “I miss the old New York.” What they mean, of course, is they miss the memories that took place in New York when they first moved there, when everything could be exciting — from eating a chopped cheese in the Bronx to witnessing a dance battle on the train in Queens; closing down a bar in Brooklyn that let you stay til 5 a.m. and the daily rush of feeling small in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
After 10 years, these same things are known (in order) as: buying a sandwich, commuting to work, having a hangover and ignoring your surroundings. If anything changed, it was probably you, not New York.
That said, let me entirely contradict myself: I miss the old New York that I moved to mere days after New Year’s Eve in 2007. Sometimes I say December 2006 to make it sound longer ago. No matter what anyone says, including my prior-paragraphed self, it was a much more interesting city back then, those pre-iPhone days that only exist to me as memories now. We never took pictures of what we were doing. We just did it.
As soon as I arrived, I moved into a loft off the Morgan Avenue L-train stop in Brooklyn, a neighborhood people now refer to as Bushwick and real estate marketers back then referred to as “East Williamsburg,” which is hilarious. Pray for the soul who moved off Morgan looking for the Williamsburg experience. Dreamers moving to New York these days know exactly what they are going to find. Information is free, complete and ubiquitous. Mention Bushwick to anyone in the world, and they will know what you’re talking about. “I went to this great restaurant when I visited …”.
Oh, the fun we had back then! It doesn’t seem that long ago, but already, it’s ancient history. Most people don’t even remember the events I’m about to tell.
The long night
On Jan. 6, 2007, the temperature in New York hit 72 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. I had lived here for three days. People exploded out of their homes like so many firecrackers, filling the sidewalks, parks, rooftops, patios. It was a gift from God in the middle of a brutal winter. The sun set that evening as a rainstorm rolled in. The sun would not shine again for 174 days.
The permanent night was not “dark” in any traditional sense. When the night is cloudy in New York, as it almost always was those six months, the clouds reflect the city’s nauseous light. The sickly orange and green clouds press on you like a lead blanket. During those dark days, the buildings were black shadows, holes in that oppressive sky. Fetid rainwater collected on the corners of the intersections, never to dry. Trees, with the color of their leaves washed out by that light, looked dead. We loved it.
Without mornings, there was no work, at least for those of us with day jobs. There was only the city (Manhattan!) and the night. We crawled the streets and avenues on countless adventures, never forced to stop. Hours stretched to days stretched to weeks stretched to months. Every corner, every doorway, every staircase, masked by the dark, each had a secret to be found. A hidden room behind a hair salon on 14th Street where the air exploded in rainbows, blinding. A basement in the East Village, a hundred feet underground, carved out of the rock and lit by tiny candles. A dark-haired girl lived there, never once leaving. “I know what’s outside,” she would say. “Endless night.”
Once, we ducked through a door on Grand Street only to find a long hallway reaching back as far as you could see. At its eventual end: a most ornate ballroom of chandeliers and oil-painted portraits. A waiter, obviously unshowered, wearing a stained wife-beater tank top, asked us if we cared for tea.
Back then, the Lower East Side, East Village, Soho: All of this was still the center of the universe. Manhattan was king. The weirdos and characters you would meet back then … whew! They seemed to appear from thin air and disappear right back into it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Did they even have normal lives, families, homes?
A topless woman with a mustache showed us a circus behind a velvet curtain in the Lower East Side. A Greek man wearing a cape took us to a room made of solid gold. That was on Mulberry Street. A girl, blonde, face carved from marble, in a private school uniform, walked me to the Upper West Side. The journey took 99 hours. We ate hamburgers at an all-night diner (you can imagine those cooks were awful tired working nonstop for months).
‘Manhattan is dying’
On 22nd Street and 8th Avenue, we found a dilapidated warehouse conducting a grand ball. I remember that Björk was there. The guests were dressed in Halloween costumes. The host, a famous drag queen, his hair shot back like a rocket, like Frankenstein’s Monster’s Wife, declared he would never throw such a ball again. He announced:
Manhattan is dying; these are its last days. There is a tide coming in, called Brooklyn, and we cannot escape. All that beard and lumberjack stuff, I just don’t get it. And anyway, I live with my mother, and she’s sick of me coming home so late.
One day, I walked out of the Beauty Bar on 14th Street (there was more than one of them back then), and I decided to go home. I hadn’t been to my loft in six months. Just as I was beginning to walk down the steps to the subway — the 3rd Avenue L station — I saw a faint glimmer of pink light in the sky. It was the sun. My eyes, accustomed to the dark, burned. The pink glow was blinding. It was morning — the morning of June 29.
By the time I exited the train at Morgan Avenue, in Brooklyn, the sun was full in the sky, beaming strongly, unencumbered by a single cloud. I checked my watch, 6:30 a.m., realized I had to be at work at 8 — a clothing store in Rockefeller Center where I would man the stock room and take out the garbage. I was nervous. Your first day at a new job is always scary.
Later that day, the first-generation iPhone was released in the United States at the price of $499 for the 4 GB model and $599 for the 8 GB model.